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“Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” —Alejandro Jodorowsky
My sophomore year my roommate and I went on a whitewater rafting trip with other Georgetown students. Along the way, at the strongest rapid, our raft capsized and we all went tumbling out. The current dragged me along and I felt myself losing control, my legs scraped along the bottom, my body made impact with rocks, the guide frantically paddled toward all of us, scrambling in the water, to pull us to safety and return us to our raft. In those moments there is a feeling of sheer panic, all of your comfort and tranquility has disappeared and is replaced by an urgency to get out of the current, get back to land, get back to safety. But what I’ve learned from the Women’s Center, and Georgetown in general, is that often there is much to be learned in the panic (metaphorically speaking). You see, this feeling is the same that emerged in me when my comfortable, safe and tranquil white feminist lens was taken down, when my cisgender- straight perspective was etched away, when my race was illuminated in a world that had previously told me I need not look for it. This core part of me felt itself crashing against rocks, being dragged under by a strong current, feeling the panic of not knowing the answers.
I came to the Women’s Center believing I was informed, better educated than most on the topics of female empowerment and ready to delve ahead around feminism and women’s rights. I had never imagined that I was the Titanic, knowing only the tip of the iceberg, ill equipped to handle all that lay below. I quickly learned that I was a white, straight, cisgender female who knew virtually nothing about intersectional feminism and allyship. I did not even know the word ‘intersectional feminism’ until I learned it here. When I began volunteering at the Women’s Center I was immersed into a new world- roundtable discussions on black feminism, men in feminism, transgender feminism, women’s representations in politics, comics, media, immigration, undocumented Hoyas, women in climate, class disparities, the list was endless. Leadership trainings that showed me I had a voice, one that I could use. My aunt’s words would resonate in my head in these spaces, “You know Mary it’s okay to have an opinion.” I did not believe her before, my opinions had brought anger, had brought discomfort, shame, my cheeks would turn red telling someone I disagreed. But here, here was a space where I could disagree, where I could put my opinion forward after feeling for years that I should remain relatively silent, and that confidence grew until I could put it forward outside of the space. Conversations with the Women’s Center director Laura Kovach constantly challenged me, put forward new ways of looking at words like ‘survivor,’ and helped me to deconstruct basic accepted tenets about women (and men) in society, she helped me make sense of it all. Every day a new piece of me was forming, a new knowledge emerging, a new confidence building. And I must admit it was not the Women’s Center alone that was doing this work; it was the close partnerships the Women’s Center had with the LGBTQ Center and its director Shiva- imparting me with insights five times her size, with the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, with the students who flowed in and out of the centers, each with a different perspective, experience, history.
In those moments of shedding, of letting the current wash me, of letting the rocks cut me and scrape away the old skin, I was so uncomfortable. The process was, at times, painful. Painful when you realize that friendships with certain people can no longer be maintained as they cling to ignorance or bigotry despite your questioning, painful when you discover that your parents- those beacons of power throughout your childhood- perhaps do not have all the knowledge you once thought they possessed, that at times they can and do do wrong, uncomfortable when you realize that in certain situations where you have not been oppressed it is your place to listen and not speak, painful when your university does not always make the choices you believe it should. The pain resonates, and makes you melancholy. It is so much easier to return to your safe haven. But I knew it was wrong to stay there, to play the card of ignorance and therefore a believed innocence. There was something better waiting on the other side. Who knew that when I emerged from that river, having been thrashed about to and fro I would emerge stronger, more knowledgeable, more critical and questioning of the information put before me and most importantly, more inclusive of experiences different, but no less valid, than my own.
As Ta-nehisi Coates wrote in his book “Between the World and Me,” (a book that I must point out would never have even been on my radar were it not for the friendships formed at the Women’s Center), “It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths…” My myths were broken, my worldview shifted, but my resolve strengthened. I now march forward from the bank of that river unafraid to continue changing, unafraid of jumping into another, knowing that I can and I will rescue myself. My bruises will heal, new skin will form, and me? Well I’ll be better because of it.